The Legacy of King Abdullah: A Conversation with Samar Fatany

Published: April 10, 2015

Editor’s Note:

Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud was proclaimed the King of Saudi Arabia on August 1, 2005 and he served as monarch and Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques until his death on January 23, 2015. Abdullah was Crown Prince and heir from 1982 to 2005 and served as regent following the incapacitation of King Fahd in 1995. As such he was responsible for the day to day operations of the government. Abdullah also served as Commander of the Saudi Arabia National Guard from 1962 through 2013. It would be difficult to overstate his impact on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its position in the world.

SUSRIS has compiled a large collection of articles, interviews (including our Feb. 2001 conversation with Crown Prince Abdullah), special reports and other reference material about the life and times of King Abdullah. Much of this is available through a new Special Section titled, “The Legacy of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.”

In an effort to further document his life and times and his influence on Saudi Arabia, the global stage and US-Saudi relations, SUSRIS launched a series of interviews with officials, diplomats, journalists, business people, military officers, scholars and more who have important insights and perspectives on King Abdullah.

Today we are pleased to offer for your consideration the latest interview in the series, our conversation with Ms. Samar Fatany, a radio broadcaster and columnist from Jeddah and author of “Modernizing Saudi Arabia.” Mr. Stephen Brundage described Ms. Fatany and her book in the Foreword saying, “Samar Fatany is one of those people who has resolutely shared her thoughts about progress, not as one with a cynical skepticism about the future but rather one who takes pride in being a Saudi and exudes the confidence that most Saudis want the best lives possible for their children, and that they realize that won’t happen living in a past that no longer exists.” He also noted:

In my 10 years in Saudi Arabia, I have learned that you can count on the sun to rise and that summers will be hot and that Samar Fatany will be pushing for the societal reforms so many people believe the Kingdom must enact for the nation to progress in an ever-more competitive world.

It seems like back in 2003, many people read her pleas for social reforms with a large dose of skepticism doubting that the nation would progress. Over the years, reformers have had frequent opportunities to doubt things would change, but they have changed. In this book, you will note that the road to a more modern society may still be long, but the Saudi people have traveled quite a distance up that road in a relatively short time.

A decade ago, people were talking about necessary reforms in education, industry, women in the work place, judicial reforms, more tolerance for varying points of view and economic diversification to name a few. But now there are new universities across the country, new industries and economic cities, women working in shops and offices, moves to modernize the judicial system and certainly there is more tolerance for varying points of view.

A lot of this progress can be credited to the nation’s leader, King Abdullah, who seems to be determined to shepherd his flock to greener pastures and seems to have a very good idea about how to accomplish it.

SUSRIS has had the opportunity to talk with Ms. Fatany on a number of occasions about developments in the Kingdom and her writing. Moreover, ten years ago this editor had the good fortune to accompany Ms. Fatany and her daughter, Sarah, during an outreach program in Tennessee organized by the Committee for International Trade (CIT). Over several days of travel in rural and suburban communities they met with civic organizations, student groups and others as part of CIT’s efforts to build bridges between Saudis and Americans. It was impressive how quickly deeply held stereotypes of what a Saudi/Arab/Muslim woman would/should talk/act like melted away as she shared, in her easy going manner, questions of family, faith, politics and mutual understanding. [Ms. Fatany’s Arab News column about this visit is at this link.] One would wish there were more such bridges being built.

You can find links to these conversations and columns below.

Our interview with Ms. Fatany was conducted by phone and email in March 2015. We thank her for sharing her insights with you here.

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EXCLUSIVE

The Legacy of King Abdullah: A Conversation with Ms. Samar Fatany

Latest in a series

[SUSRIS] What was King Abdullah’s impact on Saudi Arabia?

People Samar Fatany[Samar Fatany] Modernization. Reform. King Abdullah’s reform movement included many initiatives against corruption and injustice. He addressed six major challenges that stood in the way of modernizing Saudi Arabia: combating terrorism and extremism, confronting the hard line position against women, reforming the judiciary, upgrading the curriculum and reforming the educational system, eliminating economic barriers to support foreign trade and investments and introducing labor laws to address unemployment and corruption in the workplace, and introducing social reforms to slowly introduce sports, theater, cinema, fashion and design that were taboo issues in society.

King Abdullah came at a very sensitive and dangerous time that affected the whole world. The period after 9/11, for example, was distressing not only in Saudi Arabia but everywhere.

He was a great statesman in the way he handled the issue because Saudi Arabia was a target. The fact that 15 of the 19 terrorists chosen were Saudis put Saudi Arabia in a very compromising situation. The way he handled it by visiting capitals around the world and reaching out his hand he was very effective. He was very diplomatic. He was very wise in his speeches and in his contact with world leaders.

Saudi citizens appreciated what he did because all of us felt abandoned by the world at that time. Initially there was anger at the way we were portrayed in the world by the action of terrorists who did not represent us. We didn’t want to feel embarrassed for something that we didn’t have anything to do with.

King Abdullah gave us pride and confidence to continue in our hard work for developing our nation and for competing with the rest of the world.

[SUSRIS] How do Saudis view King Abdullah’s modernization program in the areas of economic, political and social reforms?

[Fatany] In social terms, of course from the perspective of a woman, I have to say that King Abdullah was the first King to show more respect for women and to work towards correcting the status of women in Saudi society.

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King Abdullah appointed 30 women to the Shoura Council in January 2013.

He has been a strong supporter for women. He will go down in history as a reformer who defied the hardliners and paved the way to modernize Saudi Arabia.

He fired extremists from leading positions and put a stop to the extreme fatwas that were Un-Islamic.

The women felt discriminated against and they were marginalized. King Abdullah changed all that. In all his speeches from the beginning he worked on providing better opportunities for women and later on, when he became King, he received them in his court. Of course with time he gave them leadership positions and allowed them to participate in the decision making process.

His major achievement was introducing women in the Shoura Council and encouraging them to be part of the decision making process. The empowerment of women had a great impact on society. Women are no longer marginalized. Their role is respected and recognized in all sectors.

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Newly appointed women members of the Shoura Council took the oath of office before King Abdullah.

King Abdullah introduced many work opportunities for women who previously were confined to the education and medical sectors. Today there are women bankers, IT specialists, designers, architects, lawyers, and scientists. He removed all barriers that restricted their participation in building the Saudi nation.

As for the economy he introduced many reforms and criticized ministers who did not deliver, who did not show support for the citizens. He announced a campaign to combat poverty. He was the first King to acknowledge that poverty exists in the Kingdom and he was keen on eradicating the menace.

He was very keen in providing more job opportunities, the reforms that were applied in the Ministry of Labor. He encouraged businesses – business ventures with other countries. He went and visited many capitals of the world.

King Abdullah encouraged entrepreneurial objectives and other incentives for youth. The youth were marginalized for a very long time. It was King Abdullah who empowered youth and encouraged them to contribute. He launched many initiatives that allowed citizens to contribute in our nation building.

[SUSRIS] In your book, “Modernizing Saudi Arabia,” you talked about King Abdullah’s work to boost education and to fight extremism. Can you talk about his emphasis on education and the youth dynamic – the youth bulge – and how that ties into fighting extremism?

[Fatany] Yes. Extremism. King Abdullah encouraged moderation and tolerance. He established the Dialogue Center to address extremist ideas and introduce moderate viewpoints and address sectarianism and extremism which was dominant within the society.

He also established the interfaith center in Vienna to support global coexistence and global tolerance. He visited many capitals of the world and reached out to world leaders to spread the message of peace and to show the world that Islam is a religion of peace and that terrorists do not represent us. He joined forces with global leaders in the war on terror.

King Abdullah defied the extremists and he was very strong in his fight against terrorism and sympathizers for the terrorist organizations. He was determined to cut their influence because extremists were very much in control for a very long time and they had a strong influence on society. Anyone who dared contradict them would be marginalized.

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All this changed and a lot of extremists who were put in senior positions were fired. The more progressive and more educated and more qualified people took leading positions. As a result you found there was progress and people did not feel demoralized as they used to before. So people took initiative and the youth felt they could be contributing citizens.

People were fed up with being controlled by extremist ideas and they felt they were always kept backwards because of these religious interpretations of Islam which do not accept women, that do not accept other religions, that do not show respect to this sort of viewpoint.

The extremism really was a threat to society and it was a barrier towards progress. However, it doesn’t disappear in a day or two. It takes time, but within the time that King Abdullah was King a lot of progress was made.

[SUSRIS] You mentioned that King Abdullah created the National Dialogue. Can you comment just briefly on the influence of the National Dialogue in shaping some of the more reform-minded conversations in the Kingdom?

[Fatany] The National Dialogue was created so that people can be exposed to other viewpoints. Before, there was much control and you only had one viewpoint. So people were not exposed to other cultures or to other ways of thinking. They were very isolated from the rest of the world and they could only see or believe what they were told and what they were exposed to.

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King Abdullah and Crown Prince Sultan following a meeting with delegates to a National Dialogue session on women’s issues.

The Dialogue opened the opportunity for people to discuss issues and different viewpoints. It was a different outlook, a new perspective to life, and that had a very important impact on society. Also it was a way to address the sectarian conflict that was beginning to build in society because of outside influence. And it was very important for the unity and to have solidarity within society. I think it was a very wise initiative. It was one of the many wise initiatives that were pursued by King Abdullah.

[SUSRIS] In your book and in columns you talk about judicial reform. Can you comment on the efforts that were made in that area under King Abdullah?

[Fatany] King Abdullah’s reform movement included many initiatives against corruption, nepotism and injustice. He allocated a large budget to reform the judiciary. Judicial reform in my opinion was one of the most important reforms that King Abdullah introduced.

The judiciary has a great influence on the way of life in Saudi Arabia. There were many rigid judges and as a result many people did not feel they were given justice. King Abdullah addressed this issue and allocated a lot of resources to reform this very important segment of society. It was appreciated by the whole of society because this touched every home and it affected the feeling of justice in society.

Abdullah, Nayef bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud

Of course many understand that these things take time and nobody expected immediate changes and immediate results, but the idea that we were on the right track, that there was someone who was addressing the issues and acknowledged the shortcomings – it gave a sense of optimism to the whole of society. At the same time it showed that he was sincere in his determination to introduce reforms to society because the judiciary was something that people felt was untouchable. It was a 180 degree change from one way of life to a more progressive way of life. He introduced new perspectives to the society.

[SUSRIS] So many of these reforms, not just the judiciary, are seen by society as “works in progress” that he set in motion. You know, some critics in the West say “not fast enough.” And Saudis say we know we must do these things but in our own way. What do you think?

[Fatany] Of course these things will take time. In the case of judicial reform we don’t have enough judges. We don’t have enough Sharia law graduates who are qualified enough to take on this major task. There are very few who are qualified. You need to build a whole generation of judges who are more qualified to take on these posts. This is the only reason for the delay.

[SUSRIS] Can we shift gears a little bit? How has King Abdullah influenced the relationship with the United States?

[Fatany] U.S.-Saudi relations have always been strong. Saudis are appreciative of the American contributions in the progress and development of our country in all fields.

King Abdullah and President Obama held talks in Riyadh, June 3, 2009 (Photo: SPA)

The principal issue with the United States is political, and that concerns the Israeli question. The blind support for Israel is the one thing that is a problem in our relationship with the United States. We realize that Israel is a domestic problem for leaders in America. We also – we cannot accuse all Americans of being against Arabs and against Muslims and against Saudi Arabia, but the Islamophobia and the media attacks against Saudi Arabia are causes of strain in the relationship.

The issue of Iran is another cause of political strain on Saudi-American relations.

Otherwise the relations are strong and the American contribution to Saudi progress is something that is appreciated by the government and by the people of Saudi Arabia.

[SUSRIS] What imprint has King Abdullah made on the relationship? Is there anything that you feel was important in his time as King and even before that that may have shaped the nature of the relationship?

[Fatany] As I mentioned his actions served to reaffirm relations in the aftermath of 9/11. And of course there are the scholarships. The many thousands of Saudi students going to college on the King Abdullah Scholarship Program shows the trust that Saudi Arabia has for the United States.

At the same time the economic ties show how strong the relationship is — you must understand that the Saudi Riyal and US Dollar connection is another strong point in the relationship.

There hasn’t been any other conflict as far as the government is concerned. There’s always support from government to government. As I said the only strain is through the political conflicts that arise from time to time.

[SUSRIS] What words would you choose to describe King Abdullah?

[Fatany] He was a wise King. He was wise, kind, and a statesman.

King-Abdullah-united nations un

[SUSRIS] How will history remember King Abdullah?

[Fatany] King Abdullah introduced major reforms in education and the economy. He corrected the status of women and integrated them into the workforce. He allocated a large budget to reform the judiciary, enacted labor laws to boost the economy and encouraged foreign trade and investments.

History will remember him as a wise ruler who really took Saudi Arabia to greater heights, and he paved the way towards genuine progress and reform.

[SUSRIS] Thank you, Samar Fatany, so much for your time.

Ms. Fatany was interviewed by phone and email in March 2015.

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About 

People Samar FatanySamar Fatany is Chief Broadcaster in the English section at Jeddah Broadcasting Station, which is affiliated with Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Culture and Information. Over the past 28 years, Ms. Fatany has introduced many news, cultural, and religious programs and has conducted several interviews with official delegations and prominent political personalities visiting the Kingdom. She has participated in the media coverage of many local and international conferences.

Ms. Fatany has made significant contributions in the fields of public relations and social awareness in Saudi Arabia and has been involved in activities aiming at fighting extremism and enhancing women’s role in serving society. Ms. Fatany has published two books: Saudi Perceptions & Western Misconceptions and Saudi Women towards a new era. Her third book, Saudi Challenges & Reforms, is in print now.

Source: WiseMuslimWomen.org

AUTHOR:

In 2013 Ms. Fatany published “Modernizing Saudi Arabia.” You can find more on SUSRIS.com including an interview with her an excerpts from the book.

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